It’s Advent, the season of anticipation, preparation, and waiting. A time when Christians around the world get ready to welcome Jesus - as both the babe and the risen Christ - into not only our hearts but into our lives.
At ECF Vital Practices, our Advent gift to you is a collection of essays inviting you to delve deeper into our common Christian faith, including two reflections from “Stories of Transformation: Worship, Witness, and Work in the Black Community,” a new resource from the Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries.
Our December content includes:
Liturgy, Music, and Leadership
When recent converts are asked why they chose to join an Episcopal Church, many share they were drawn by the beauty of the liturgy. As Episcopalians we gather regularly to participate in liturgies that back to the 16th century. Week after week, year after year, we join our voices – in song and in prayer – in faithful celebration of Jesus’ sacrifice for us all.
But is the liturgy meant to be a place where lay people learn to lead? At the end of the Holy Eucharist the congregation is dismissed with a call to discipleship and leadership, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” For our November and December ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers we have reached out across our church to find leaders who are using liturgy, music, and the Bible to inspire and empower people to live into their baptismal covenant. We hope their stories inspire you.
I enjoy church crashing.
Or, to put it differently, I enjoy visiting different churches for Sunday morning worship. I love to worship through the unique lens a community has developed to seek and know God, to find out what mission and ministry they are engaged in, and to hear what makes them excited about being part of their faith community.
I refer to these jaunts as “church crashing”, a play on the phrase “crashing the party”, which means showing up when uninvited. Far too often I have encountered places that are not as welcoming as they purport to be and I have felt more like an itinerant interloper than a welcomed guest. That is, I have felt like I was crashing their party. Still, the good outweighs any negatives and I have always felt like I’ve gained more from the experience.
I have friends who are quite passionate about grammar. I was reminded of this last week, when I was copyediting an essay and, in a moment of frustration, I posted something about the emdash
on Facebook. I received an immediate response from a flurry of grammar-loving friends. I care about sentence construction and can diagram a sentence pretty well, but I know people who take pleasure in knowing the ins and outs of the Chicago Manual of style. I am not one of those people, but I am glad they exist.
In some ways, these grammar-advocate friends of mine reminded me of my friends who are liturgists, who know the rubrics in the prayer book by heart and can name all the linens. These rubrics and the canons are a little like punctuation, helping us make sense of the liturgy, giving us guidelines for doing it well. We should trust them, and we should think hard before we break them.
Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name… [The Book of Common Prayer, pg.362]
It never gets old, does it?
I arrived in the Episcopal Church 18 years ago this season and I still remember my fumbling attempts to master the Sanctus. It’s tricky. If I tried to get the hang of the tune, the words passed me by. If I focused on praying the words, the music messed me up. I loved the idea of the liturgy; I just couldn’t get the hang of doing it. I struggled to be present in its beauty.
My relationship with the Sanctus changed in a twinkling, during a sermon on the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. The Anglican celebrant put the question to us: If you knew right now that you would to spend all of eternity in the company of heaven, surrounding the throne, singing praise without pause or ceasing, would you dread the boredom or would you anticipate the joy?
Well that’s a no-brainer. But what a question! What wonderful images it brings to mind, what wonderful dimension it brings to how I experience the Sanctus in the larger context of Holy Eucharist.
I went to a wedding this weekend at a small Episcopal Church in Rhode Island. It was a simple and short and lovely service. I wondered a bit today about the people participating in the ceremony who were not Episcopalian or Christian (including the groom). Does it matter that they didn’t sing along with some of the hymns, or that they were unsure about the responses?
Everyone was made to feel welcome, from being transported from the hotel to the church by bus, the fact that the service was printed entirely in the bulletin, to being greeted by the parents to the wonderful reception afterward.
Perhaps most importantly, it was clear that my friends up there at the altar were as happy as I’ve ever seen them. Their love for each other and joy was obvious to everyone there, even if they had never stepped into a church before or didn’t speak English well (some of them didn’t).
It was a comedy of errors admittedly – I was still relatively new to my position as a parish administrator and the person in question had been out of town and out of email communication. Unfortunately, we were also less than 48 hours to Christmas Eve when I got an email informing me that I had one less usher than the minimum needed for one of the Christmas Eve services. The head of the ushers was also out of town and I had no idea who else might be able to jump in and help out. Last minute phone calls and emailing ensued.
Is this a familiar scenario to you?
Even on an ‘ordinary’ Sunday, these situations are stressful and can lead to crossed lines of communication in search of someone to help out at the last minute.
(Overheard online ...) "Because they were rude to me and treated me like a semiconscious beast they'd shot down from a tree with a tranquilizer after I told them I was hearing impaired, I told them I wouldn't be coming back."
Sounds like an experience I had in church last weekend when I was told that, since I was not a member of their denomination, I could not receive communion (and no, it was not Catholic - it was Episcopalian). I was undercover as a visitor and, when asked whether or not I am an Episcopalian in good standing, I chose to misrepresent my membership and standing by saying, "No" (even though I am baptized, confirmed, and ordained. The newly-minted priest then informed me (quite politely but firmly) that only Episcopalians are allowed to receive.
Believe it or not, it was a GREAT experience. I got to feel what many of our guests encounter weekly, all across our land. This priest was a little mis-informed but the effect was still the same. I sat in the pew and watched baptized followers of Jesus participate in a meal instituted by a Rabbi who (best we can tell) never baptized anyone.
Every summer of Year B in our lectionary cycle we take five weeks to read one chapter of one book. The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John covers the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the debate it inspired. It is the primary teaching of John on the Eucharist.
And it is the key to why John’s community split off from a traditional 90 C.E. Jewish-Christian Community over the issue of how to celebrate communion.
Up until John all Christians celebrated communion according to the formula prescribed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, picked up verbatim by the communities that created the gospels of Luke, Matthew and Mark. The Eucharist was tied to the Last Supper and Christ’s sacrifice and was meant to be a repeated symbolic sacrifice of Christ “until he comes again.”
John’s people would have none of it. Even though they would have known full well the formula and practiced it often in the Jewish-Christian synagogue (in Ephesus? Antioch?) when they put it in writing there was not a loaf of bread or a cup of wine included in the last supper ritual. Instead, this community took the last supper and Christ’s sacrifice as a call to servanthood symbolized by the washing of feet. For them the Eucharist was something else entirely.
Bountiful Abundance. Eternal Life. All are fed, not just the twelve. The Feeding of the Five Thousand. It is not a memorial to Christ’s sacrifice but Christ’s actual flesh and blood given for the life of the world. ““I come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.”
Messing with tradition is dicey.
For most of the 110 people on this weekend’s parish retreat, every place on the mountain is sacred. The diocesan conference center in the heart of Kentucky, at the top of a mountain, is a thin place, where the space between God and earth seems ever closer.
Even though this was my first parish retreat there, I understand the attachment. Under the canopy of trees, watching the clouds move like puffs of smoke, I talked to God. Groups hiked to different peaks, scaling rock walls, bloody knuckles a small sacrifice for a magnificent view. Away from city lights, people spread blankets on the gravel path, marveling together over the Perseid meteor shower.
We shared campfires and long walks, swims in the pool and cocktails. Meals served cafeteria style at tables for eight. Compline in a ragged oval in a game room and morning prayer in the outdoor chapel.
Don’t you get bored saying the same things over and over?
My parents asked me that after they attended their first Episcopal worship service. When I was a child, we attended a United Methodist church with a fantastic youth group and traditional worship. In the years since my departure, the church has branched out, offering ‘celebration’ worship with PowerPoint and altar calls. Don’t get me wrong: I have experienced, on occasion, spiritual joy during the eighth round of “Sing Alleluia to the Lord.” Really.
But week in and week out, I draw strength and nourishment from our Episcopal worship.
In my early days at The Episcopal Church, I couldn’t quite articulate how the ritual and liturgy filled my soul.
It wasn’t until my husband almost lost his arm – and life – that I could find words to express my feelings.
The Quakers have a wonderful marriage tradition that my husband and I borrowed for our wedding nearly 15 years ago.
States require the signatures of a couple of witnesses on the official marriage certificate. But in the Quaker tradition, everyone who attends signs another certificate as a witness to their presence and support for the marriage. This one isn't legally binding, but it's community building, a reminder that marriage, like other commitments, doesn’t happen in a isolation. It happens within community.
Our church celebrated a baptism on Sunday. Since we are still new to the congregation, we’re learning their customs. I was delighted to be introduced to a new one.
Yesterday, The Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops to adopt a resolution which authorizes provisional use of the rite “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” starting Dec. 2 (the first Sunday of Advent). The vote was not a close vote in either house (Bishops, 74%; Deputies, Lay, 76% and Clergy 78%). The resolution, liturgy, and commentary can be found beginning on page 184 in the Blue Book. (The convention made some slight revisions to the version of the rite included in the report.) Clergy will need the permission of their bishops to provide this rite, so its use will vary from diocese to diocese.
Many will be upset or even angry about this decision. Many others will be grateful for the new opportunities for ministry that will be made possible by this decision. Still others will not have strong feelings about it one way or the other. Who could be surprised by these reactions? After all, our Church is made up of “all sorts and conditions” of people!
Whatever your response is to this decision, I offer the following pastoral perspectives.
St. Lydia’s, the church I attend in Brooklyn, is both experimenting and following in a long tradition. As I’ve written about here before, we combine liturgy and a meal. The practice is a very old one, but you won’t find many churches doing that these days. Our pastor tweaks ancient liturgies or develops new prayers. It’s a creative endeavor, but one rooted tradition.
God’s first act in the Bible is to create. It’s important that we, made in the image of God, continue to engage in creative acts. God, however, makes the heavens and earth out of the void. We are fortunate to have some materials to work with: Our experience of the world around us, scripture, and the religious tradition that has developed over thousands of years. St. Lydia’s is a helpful model for finding the balance between creative action and structure, allowing us to be creative within a framework, using the elements passed down to us.
During the sermon at St. Lydia’s parishioners are invited to participate, but are encouraged to share stories, rather than opinions. This allows people to think and tell stories but keeps the sermon sharing time from spiraling out of control or becoming a debate. Of course, not every church will want it’s members to participate in the sermon, but every church should think of ways to engage its members in new ways, to help them say and think and do things they haven’t before. This might be within the context of weekday services or singing groups or book studies or art classes. Whatever it is, it should allow people to share some part of themselves, challenge themselves, or create something new, while also giving them some guidelines to work within.
Yesterday's blog post, "Pulling the Plug," shared the experience of a congregation that made the decision to stop doing things that aren't working. Easy to say, harder to do, especially when you have an expectation of what church is 'supposed' to look like.
Today, I'm sharing a blog by Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. Mike shares his practice of sharing 'church' with people in a nearby office building.
CCC outside our walls -- Noonday Prayer at One Met Square
Today at 12:05 pm, as I do every Wednesday, I led a brief noonday prayer service on the ground floor of One Metropolitan Square. It's a 10-minute service adapted from our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It includes a psalm, a Gospel reading with a two-minute silent meditation on a question I pose after the reading (today we used the parable of the mustard seed from Mark
, and I invited people to ask Christ to make them receptive to God's word taking root in their heart and great things coming from it), the Lord's Prayer and a time for open intercession, prayer and praise.
We've been doing the service for more than a year now. The group that comes is fairly small (12-15 regulars, average weekly attendance is usually around 6-11) and fairly diverse (from a law partner and lawyers to a maintenance man and one of the guys who shines shoes in the lobby). During Lent we get more people. During the summer, fewer.
This Sunday is the Trinity Sunday, one of the seven principle feast days of the year and the only one that addresses squarely what we believe as Christians. The tradition of the Sunday following Pentecost marking the Holy Trinity began when Thomas Becket was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on that day in 1162 and called for the observance of Trinity Sunday on that day ever after.
Rublev’s icon painted in the early 15th Century is the most famous attempt to capture the concept of the Trinity in art. It leaves the impression that our God resides in an ongoing conversation of creation, redemption, and sanctification and that we are invited to sit at God’s table and enter into the conversation.
While the Trinity is a statement of doctrine it is at its heart an affirmation of mystery. Logically, it is a paradox. Something cannot be three and one at the same time. I think one source of the power of this way of pondering God is drawn from this paradox. Brain science has shown that the human mind struggling with a logical paradox causes a neural firing that ignites all regions of one’s brain. One of the exercises Albert Einstein used to stimulate his mind in seeking the discovery of his theory of relativity was to simply sit and contemplate paradox.
In 2009, General Convention passed a resolution to create resources for same-gender blessings. These resources are an attempt to create tools, including theological and liturgical resources, for those same-gender couples that feel called to form a lifelong covenant with each other.
Bowie Snodgrass was on the committee that produced a liturgy for same-gender blessings. She also founded Faith House, and has been a lay minister for many years in various capacities. I spoke with her about the experience of working on the committee and helping create the same-gender liturgy.
The process, she explained, was a communal one. The committee met between July 2009 and August 2010. They collected preexisting ceremonies from many different people, wrote and rewrote a ceremony, and received feedback from various communities and individuals, including the Anglican Liturgical Consultation, which they incorporated into the liturgy. “So much was worked over and over that it really came out of the group and the feedback and the movement of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “It really is a work of the people.”
I somehow think that other rectors did not spend their last days of sabbatical crawling clubs in Chicago or dancing in front of the stage at Buddy Guy’s. But that is how my time away ended and I loved every minute of it.
As I spend my first days back at St. Andrew’s I am trying not to lose the freedom and spirit that I felt in my four months away. The time in Africa put me in touch with other cultures that unhooked me from the driven American linear life and gave me a new flow. Time at Taize unhooked me further. Traipsing Sicilian streets and ruins, I connected to La Dolce Vita and then spent time in Chicago leading the High Life.
I have come home to a church that likes to party. I thought it was hilarious that I spent a good portion of my first day back in the office making arrangements for our upcoming June 2 Annual Auction with a theme of Margaritaville: A Night in Key West. This Friday we will be hosting an African Rhythms Coffee House. This Sunday is our Rose Brunch, a fabulous feast for all our church school volunteers. Then the Pentecost picnic. Then Cosmic Bowling with the acolytes.
Churches often fail to observe copyright laws, or even the basics of courtesy. We have this unfortunate habit of thinking that just because it is "for the church" it is OK if I make a few copies of this or that. So, Sunday School teachers photocopy lesson plans and download photographs or craft designs from the web. The children's chapel uses a little photocopied song book someone assembled a few years ago. The youth leaders play a movie they rented for the youth group. The choir director makes photocopies of the anthem. The church's website is has a music piece playing in the background. The newsletter features photographs from the internet or scanned in and used without the photographer's permission. And I can not tell you how often I visit a church that has all of the hymns printed in the bulletin (sometimes even with music) and nothing about a license that gives them permission to do so. That day's bulletin alone puts their church at risk of $400,000+ in fines! In a typical church with several of these violations, the weekly toll could easily be close to a million dollars a week! Don't think anyone will sue a a church? Think again....
I had a blog post almost ready to post before I went to church on Sunday evening. Perhaps that’s what a sacrament should do: engage and disrupt. At St. Lydia’s on Sunday evenings we prepare a meal together and participate in a simple and ancient liturgy. We tell stories and sing and pray. This week, some of the stories were unexpectedly moving. They were about loss and healing.
Telling each other difficult things, making sure that someone else in the world knows that we are in pain, or afraid, or have endured a difficult past, isn’t easy, but it’s essential to living in community. We are, to some extent, the story that we tell ourselves, a narrative that we’ve been developing throughout our entire lives. If we don’t tell that story, then we shrink into ourselves and away from our community.
Of course, these experiences aren’t always easy to tell, or to hear. After the sermon we sang, and then we were invited to offer our prayers aloud. This Sunday there were more names than usual - the names of the sick and those who had died and those who were suffering in less tangible ways.